A confession: Getting to grips with cognitive diversity

A confession I must commit to print: there were times, early in my time at Debut, that I sat through meetings with HR professionals at FTSE 100 organisations and did not have a clue what they were talking about.

Written by Shaun Sharkey, Partnerships Executive

A confession I must commit to print: there were times, early in my time at Debut, that I sat through meetings with HR professionals at FTSE 100 organisations and did not have a clue what they were talking about. Phrases like ‘cognitive diversity’, ‘Early Talent Acquisition’, ‘the 80/20 rule’, ‘behaviour modelling’, ‘alternation ranking’, and ‘PES” abounded in these rooms. I reacted with what I felt was the safest course of action–nodding in sagely agreement.

In March 2017, the Harvard Business Review published a study that challenged the idea that teams of gender, race and class diversity produce better outcomes. This is something of a controversial notion as it is commonly held that teams of varied backgrounds create an uptick in overall ROI. Hence, McKinsey report that advancing women’s equality will add $12 trillion dollars to the world economy. While Melinda Gates contends, ‘Companies across industries are more innovative, more profitable, and less likely to take dangerous risks when women and minorities are more equally represented in their ranks.’


They are far from wrong, academically or morally. In the first place, nobody can argue with the impulse to diversify the professional world–it is staggeringly plain. Would it surprise you to hear that there are more FTSE 100 CEOs named John than there are female CEOs? Or that in a country where 88% of all people go to state schools, 76% of top judges attended a private school? Did you know that your surname is still a major determinant of your social status? Our organisations are fossilised and inaccessible, with change coming at a glacial pace.

But in terms of pure executional performance, the HBR claim that the real determinant of improvement is not demographic diversity, but cognitive diversity. Demographic diversity still matters hugely–lack of demographic difference feeds into a dearth of cognitive diversity–but it may not be a panacea to creating a more productive workforce. Indeed, over the last few decades, they have run a strategic exercise with executive groups which focuses on managing ‘new, uncertain, and complex situations.’ The exercise, ‘requires the group to formulate and execute a strategy to achieve a specified outcome, against the clock.’

They ran this task 100 times over a 12 year period and found that some groups ‘fared exceptionally well and others incredibly badly, irrespective of diversity in gender, ethnicity, and age.’ The teams that performed consistently better were those with ‘differences in perspective or information processing styles.’

That teams of diverse thinkers perform better shouldn’t really be a surprise. How arid and lame a music group made up of four McCartneys or four Lennons would have been; how one-dimensional a football team of just Hendersons or Rooneys would be. We know, intuitively, that there is a productive dynamic that stems from difference.

But organisations often foster environments that hinder divergent thinking. As the HBR points out, ‘we hire in our own image’. Teams recruit those who ‘think and express themselves in a similar way. As a result, organisations often end up with like-minded teams.’ This is called functional bias: the proclivity to hire mirror images of ourselves. And in many cases, it goes beyond bias, with organisations hiring ‘cultural fits’ or those who fit certain psychometric profiles.

This can be dangerous, as our recent history shows. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Robert Shiller published an article on how warning voices were diluted in the run up to the crash. Drawing from Irving L. Janis’ 1972 work ‘Groupthink’, he explained that such employees are:

‘Forever worrying about their personal relevance and effectiveness, and feel that if they deviate too far from the consensus, they will not be given a serious role. They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus if they cannot express these doubts in a formal way that conforms with apparent assumptions held by the group.’

Of course, this is an extreme example. But it demonstrates that unbending, collective thinking can have disastrous effects for an organisation. That said, there is a growing awareness amongst some companies of the importance of cognitive diversity. Indeed, Facebook have actively tried to encourage disparate voices. Regina Dugan, who in 2017 led Facebook’s secretive DAPRA lab, stated of cognitive diversity: ‘It’s just hands-down true. When we are working on very difficult problems, it’s essential that we have different voices in the room. In my teams it is common to see Oscar-winning directors working side by side with coders, or physicists working with textile manufacturers.’

Yet Facebook is an outlier. Most organisations still gravitate towards hiring the familiar. Perhaps this is unsurprising. In people we look for signifiers that we recognise and trust. This practice is hard-wired into us. But it may yet be the case that developments in cognitive recognition tools, combined with greater academic understanding, will encourage organisations to hire those who, in Apple’s famous motto, ‘Think Different’.

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